On a balmy September evening in Washington DC’s downtown Dupont Circle neighborhood, I climbed the stairs to the cozy rooftop terrace, perched above the penthouse apartment of the old, restored brownstone townhouse. I was tired, having left the office only at 8:45 PM, and was pleased to find some friends from work and a bucket of ice-cold beers waiting for me.
I opened a bottle and looked around. There was a work associate of mine, Jennifer McKinley, and her roommate, Sarah O’Brien. Good Irish girls, they were graduates of a famous Southern party university. Having arrived earlier than I, they had already knocked back more than a few beers each.
We talked some pleasantries, and then, glancing towards her roommate, Sarah dropped a bombshell.
“You’re different,” she drawled, the smell of the beer on her breath wafting towards me as we stood admiring the lit-up Washington skyline.
I stopped in my tracks. The first thing I did, in some kind of reflex reaction, was to check my tie. Maybe it was out of place, or not matching my deep blue pinstripe suit that was the uniform of my work as a senior consultant at a large international consulting firm?
“What are you talking about?” I finally barked out, with more than a hint of embarrassment in my voice.
The girls looked towards each other, and began to giggle. “No, not you PERSONALLY. You JEWS! It’s JEWS who are different!” The girls nearly spilt the beer in their glasses as they chuckled.
“Where in the world did you get THAT idea?” I snarled, trying not to sound too defensive. It seemed they were looking clear through me. I always tried to dress exactly like my non-Jewish colleagues, but here I was, feeling like my pants had just slid down to a point below my knees.
“Look, let me tell you what I mean,” said Sarah, unable to hide the amusement in her eyes. “Jews are always on the liberal side of the political spectrum. They are very careful to stress the importance of education for their kids. And when push comes to shove – Jews always stick together. THAT’S what I mean about being different.”
I was silent for five seconds as I gathered my words for the counter-attack. “You don’t know what you are talking about! Do you know how much conflict there is between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews? They can’t even agree on a single synagogue to pray in!!” I spat out.
Sarah and Jennifer looked at each other, and just burst out laughing. They could see that I didn’t get their point at all.
They were right.
It took many years until the day arrived that, looking out on a sun-drenched day over the beautiful Judean Hills south of Jerusalem, my kippah (head covering) perched on my head and my biblical sandals stirring up the ancient dust at my feet – I realized that these half-drunk girls had tapped into a deep truth:
“From the tops of mountains, I can see them; and from the hills, I view them: a people that dwells alone, and is not numbered among the nations.” (Numbers 23, 9).